Go west, young woman

January 20, 2009

10441_180x270Howdy, pardners! If you’re worried that David is hogtied to a railroad track or doing time in the pokey, rest assured he’s not—David is still very much the author and owner of Precocious Curmudgeon. In his typically gracious fashion, however, David offered me a temporary place to hang my five-gallon hat after I left PopCultureShock and lit out for the territory. Most of my reviews will focus on manga, though I may share thoughts on noteworthy music, movies, and books as well. I’m very honored to be David’s guest and promise not to sully his good name.

As you might have guessed from that cornpone introduction, I recently finished the first volume of Yu Yugami’s Go West! (CMX), a high-spirited adventure from the creator of Those Who Hunt Elves, Dokkoida?!, and Hikkatsu! (Looking at that list of titles, I’m beginning to wonder if Yagami’s editor is inordinately fond of emphatic punctuation marks. But I digress.) Go West! tells the story of Naomi, a plucky teen on a mission to find the parents from whom she was separated eighteen years earlier. With few clues to guide her search, Naomi rides west, where she believes her parents intended to settle. Naomi’s efforts are helped and hindered by a colorful assortment of characters, from Gunman, a taciturn bounty hunter who takes his fashion cues from Clint Eastwood, to Red Bullet, a horse incapable of deviating from a straight line, cacti and buildings be damned.

Yagami’s vision of the American West is pure Hollywood. His towns look like stage sets, with swinging-door saloons and dusty Main Streets, while his landscapes resemble the Monument Valley—all that’s missing is a howling coyote. The very fakeness of the setting actually works in favor of Go West!, as it suits the story’s cartoonish, hyperbolic tone. It also grants Yagami license to mix-and-match genre conventions, as he borrows plot points and character types from blaxploitation and kung-fu movies.

Those characters are both an asset and a liability to the story. Naomi, for example, often comes across as a shonen hero in drag, as she’s brash, determined, and astonishingly naive to the point of seeming dim-witted. Yet her can-do spirit and sheer gutsiness are welcome attributes in a female lead; Naomi radiates confidence and purpose, inspiring others to follow her example.

Naomi’s flamboyant bodyguard Mingo Bomber, on the other hand, is primarily defined by his appearance—an unfortunate decision on Yagami’s part, as Mingo is the only black character in the story. Yagami doesn’t give Mingo much to do except dispatch a few bad guys and announce that Naomi is his long-lost sister. That joke is beaten into the ground, yet never yields a single laugh; it’s both tasteless and toothless, and serves little dramatic purpose other than underscoring the characters’ racial identities. (In one of the series’ more bizarre anachronisms, Naomi claims to be from “the Far East.” Students of American history may remember that nineteenth-century statutes explicitly banned Asian women from entering the United States as a strategy for deterring Chinese immigration.)

The artwork is also a mixed bag. Yagami shies away from screentone, preferring spidery line work and bold, black patches to delineate space and objects. Most of the time, his approach works beautifully, yielding clean layouts that give his characters room to breathe. His fist-fights and shoot-outs, however, would benefit from a more judicious and varied use of tone to transform the tangle of lines and unidentified flying objects into body parts, bullets, breaking chairs, etc. so that the reader can make sense of what’s happening.

As with Yagami’s other work, Go West! is often more frantic than funny, with characters fussin’ and fightin’ and repeatin’ themselves, seldom to good effect. Yet Go West! has undeniable charm. Yagami grasps an important truth about the West: it’s not a place or a time period but a state of mind, a stage on which seekers and scam artists alike act out their dreams. However anachronistic or limited his characters may be, they hanker for a better life, know the value of camaraderie, and display true grit when circumstances demand it. Sounds like a Western to me.

Upcoming 1/21/2009

January 20, 2009

Many fine books are coming out tomorrow, according to this week’s ComicList, but you must forgive me if I fixate on one to the neglect of the others.

After School Nightmare Vol. 10

"After School Nightmare" Vol. 10

Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare (Go! Comi) concludes with its tenth volume, and it’s easily one of the best shôjo manga ever to be published in English and probably one of the best manga to be published in English, period. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, it’s about an intersex high-school student; Ichijo has been raised as a boy, but he has female genitalia. He’s enrolled in a “special class” where sleeping students, every one of them as conflicted as Ichijo, struggle against one another to find a “key” that will allow them to “graduate.”

That’s a lot of quote marks, but they’re intended to represent the story’s absorbing ambiguity instead of sarcasm. I thought Mizushiro’s X-Day (Tokyopop) was primarily noteworthy for its unfulfilled promise. Her talents were evident, but she kept the gloves on as she executed an intriguingly volatile premise. The gloves are off with After School Nightmare, and Mizushiro’s portrayals of adolescent uncertainty are scathing as often as they are sentimental.

The series centers on one of the most credibly constructed love triangles I’ve ever seen in fiction. Ichijo is torn between a deceptively fragile girl named Kureha and a deceptively aggressive boy named Sou. Romantic indecision often annoys me, especially when the fulcrum of the triangle is merely forestalling a difficult but inevitable choice. Mizhushiro develops each character so well and cuts Ichijo so little slack (seriously, the creator is brutal to her protagonist) that the triangle ends up mesmerizing instead of irritating.

Seriously, if you like shôjo manga and haven’t read it, now is your chance to wallow in it from beginning to end. If you don’t like shôjo manga but enjoy elegant, emotionally volatile storytelling about characters that resonate, do yourself a favor and make an exception.

And now for a few more highlights from the week:

  • Black Jack vol. 3 (Vertical): Classic Tezuka craziness. You can’t go wrong.
  • Gantz vol. 3 (Dark Horse): I think I must not have made myself clear the last time I wrote about this series. What I meant to say was that I find the series entertaining in a sick, voyeuristic way, though I refuse to acknowledge that it’s in anyway mature in its sensibility. It’s shônen with viscera and nipples, but it’s certainly a kick.
  • Oishinbo: Japanese Cuisine (Viz): A culinary sampler from the long-running food manga. The next Flipped column looks at in more depth.
  • Real Vol. 3 (Viz): Takehiko Inoue’s genius series about wheelchair basketball. Easily one of the best debuts of 2008.